Protecting what we celebrate

The truths, rights and freedoms our country commemorates also are a summons to protect and defend

Independence Day always reminds me of the Gateway Arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

Since the time it was completed in 1965, when I was 8 years old, I would gather each Fourth of July with family and friends to watch the magnificent fireworks display at the foot of the Arch. Given that it also was my birthday, I certainly felt all the greater sense of celebration, but not without a growing appreciation over the years for the day commemorating our country’s birth, born from a quest for freedom and rights that history shows must be ever safeguarded from threats.

What stands out most in my memory about these celebrations is how the multicolored lights from the cascade of exploding fireworks would reflect off the massive legs of the Arch and two prominent architectural landmarks framed by it—the “Old Cathedral Church” and the “Old Courthouse.” It is fitting that representations of church and state are the first things seen through the memorial window of the Gateway Arch erected as a symbol of our country’s westward expansion. These landmarks represent the freedoms we cherish most—the freedom of religion and the rule of law meant to protect our constitutional freedoms.

The “Old Courthouse” in particular represents the struggles and difficulties our nation has experienced in its history in recognizing the “truths” that the Declaration of Independence declared “to be self-evident”—“that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

In this courthouse, the first two trials of the pivotal Dred Scott case were heard regarding the issue of slavery and freedom. After the first case was dismissed in 1847 over a technicality, a second case in 1850 would result in a verdict by a St. Louis jury recognizing Dred Scott as a “free man.” But the plaintiffs appealed the case over what they claimed to be “their lost property,” and the case ultimately was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1857. The nation’s highest court, in a 7-2 decision, declared a whole class of people to be less than human—to be “property”—and therefore not deserving of the same rights belonging to those said to be “created equal.” This decision set the stage for our Civil War four years later.

We ask ourselves today, how could these “truths,” said to be self-evident, evade the understanding of the most learned men in our country? And yet 116 years later, the Supreme Court would repeat this ruling, declaring another whole class of people as property less than deserving of the “unalienable” right to “Life.” Compare the language of the 1857 Dred Scott and the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decisions and you cannot help but be appalled.

History demonstrates that the self-evident “truths” and our “unalienable Rights,” celebrated in our Declaration of Independence, and those of our “Freedoms” guaranteed in our Constitution are never long without being challenged and attacked. These rights and freedoms are a great gift, but they also are a summons to us to be vigilant to protect them.

We celebrate as a nation now one such man—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—for standing up to defend the “Truths, Rights, and Freedoms” that our Founding Fathers recognized as coming “from above” and not from man. That it took 100 years after the Civil War for racial bigotry to begin giving way to a greater respect for equality and civil rights tells of the struggle and slowness of the human heart to respect these self-evident “truths,” and how easily they can be undone.

So today, particularly, when our religious freedom and rights of conscience are threatened, and with attacks against the Catholic Church only becoming bolder and more vile, we must have the courage to stand up and defend the fullness of the “Truth” that comes from God and the Church He has entrusted it with and that is to be the protector of.

My memories of fireworks at the foot of the Gateway Arch also include the hymn so often sung at the Masses of that holiday weekend—“America the Beautiful.” But one verse in particular always struck me and has become my prayer for this country I love—“America, America, God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!”

May your celebration of our nation’s birth be blessed and may God grant you the courage to defend and protect the “Truths, Rights, and Freedoms” that we celebrate. n

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